On the Edge of Discovery: So What is a Carte-de-visite?

seperator image

CDV by T.W. Taylor, 1864.

 Originally posted March 23, 2012

One of the great fads of 19th century material culture, the carte-de-visite or CDV was at its zenith in America during the Civil War. The tiny portrait, only 2 ¼ x 3 ½ inches mounted on a card 2 ½ x 4 inches, was an ideal size to fit into a soldier’s pocket and was easy to mail enclosed in a letter. Sales of the CDVs were fueled by the need of every family to hold close their absent members through these handy photographs, as well as collecting portraits of famous people of the day. How did the CDV come about?

 The custom during the nineteenth century was to present your visiting card when you called on a friend or business associate. People in that era had a basket or silver tray (depending on your status) in the foyer, where the cards were strategically placed, so that other callers could see who your friends were.  Today we have Face book for that! 

 A number of ingenious people in Europe came up with the idea of putting a small photograph on the visiting card. In England, the Duke of Parma and Hugh Diamond made photo CDVs, while in France two amateurs, E. Delessert & Count Agaudo had the same idea. But it was Andre Adolpho Eugene Disderi who took out the patent on the carte-de-visite in 1854 and is remembered in the photographic histories.  At first the idea seemed to be a flop, until Disderi took a portrait of Napoleon III and his family which was issued in the carte-de-visite format. Suddenly everyone wanted their own carte-de-visite and the opportunity to purchase ones of the important people of the day.

 During that time, portraits of famous people were not readily available to the public in newspapers. Usually portraits were only available through engravings published in books and magazines.

 Photographers worked hard to attract famous people to their studios, sometimes paying them for a sitting.  The return was large for publishing portraits of politicians, actors, authors, clergy, artists, scientists, military leaders, abolitionists and the infamous.

 It is well known that in England, Queen Victoria was an avid collector of CDVs of all her courtiers.  The photo album was born to fill the need of organizing and displaying CDVs. No Victorian home was complete without a photo album displayed prominently in the parlor.

Album of the Coates Family open to a page showing DeWees Roberts in uniform and Mrs. Charles Coates & family.

 Here at CCHS there are over 200 albums in the collection, filled with CDVs of local people and the world leaders they admired.  The format was not only limited to portraits – in the collection are images of local businesses and churches, famous horses and prize winning swine. The CDV was popular in the U.S. from about 1858 until the turn-of-the century.

 West Chester photographer Nathan Parker advertized in the Chester County Times May 4, 1861 that he had taken portraits of the First West Chester Rifles and the National Guards who left for duty to protect the Commonwealth and gave free photos to the families and sweethearts left behind.  He also advertized for sale photographs of President Lincoln and Governor Curtin. Next blog you will learn more about the photographers who made CDVs during the Civil War years in Chester County. Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist

CDV of an unidentified woman and dog, 1896.